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Nebraska Historical Markers - The Texas Trail

Cows, poop, death and dust, mostly.

Note that the historical markers I’ve chosen for this series are not in any order. There is no theme other than Nebraska history and my particular interest in them. Note also that I am not a historian nor I am an old West buff. Consider that a disclaimer that you are to not use these articles for reference. I will try to provide links to reference sites whenever possible.

Texas Trail Marker Text

After the Civil War, herds of Texas cattle were driven north to marketing points in eastern Nebraska, but settlement by homesteaders forced the trail further west each year. Beginning in 1875, Union Pacific selected Ogallala as its main shipping point. During the following decade, thousands of Longhorn cattle were trailed through Perkins County, in the vicinity of this marker. Beginning in Texas. The trail turned northward through the Indian territory into western Kansas. From Dodge City on the Arkansas River, the trail continued to Buffalo Station, Kansas, entering Nebraska in Hitchcock County. The hardest days drive for the trail weary men and cattle was the 30 miles from the head of Stinking Water Creek and Southeast Perkins County to Ogallala on the South Platte; it was the longest and driest drive of the trip. In 1876 over 60,000 Texas cattle were driven over the trail, and between 1879 and 1884 over 100,000 cattle made the trip each year, with the last great drive occurring in 1884. Due to settlement in the counties to the south, as well as in Perkins County, the last drives were made through the western part of the county.


The purpose of the Texas Trail was to get cattle from Texas to Nebraska so they could be put on rail lines and shipped to wherever. My assumption is most of them were headed east for slaughter, as there were plenty of people who wanted beef for dinner. Many were destined to go into areas of Nebraska, such as the Sandhills, that were not yet settled and being used by ranchers. American Indians* were being removed from the area as settlers moved in They were pushed into reservations and the government was provided them with cattle. I was interested to find the size of the largest herd driven along these trails. The most I could find was 3500 cattle in a single drive.

Consider 3500 cows coming into a town. My visual is one of the final scenes of the John Wayne movie, “The Cowboys” where we see cattle being driven into a town by young men. We see shots of the town’s residents looking at the cattle, then seeing the drovers, who are all boys become men. Everyone is astonished. Everything is pristine. It is Hollywood.

(The premise of the movie - John Wayne’s men leave him just before he has to drive cattle north and the only replacements he can find are boys. Along the trail, they encounter evil in the form of Bruce Dern, and John Wayne helps the boys all become men.)

Think about what that scene would look like in real life. If it were a late summer day in Nebraska, it was most likely hot and dry. Imagine all the dust. Imagine how much shit comes from 3500 head of cattle. I could dress that up by saying “manure” which is what nice people do, but it’s “shit”. There would be much of it. Now… I am sure they didn’t drive cattle up the middle of main street. They likely had pens away from the town, but you get the idea - driving 1000 head of cattle anywhere would cause quite a disturbance.

According to this excellent article, a cattle drive took from 25 to 100 days to get to Western Kansas, and a crew of 12 drovers could handle 2000 to 3000 cattle.

It’s difficult for us to imagine what it would be like to sit on a horse all day long in the hot sun. These men must have been exhausted at the end of the day. Picture yourself on a trail for 100 days and what it would be like to reach your destination. You’d probably want a drink. A hot bath. A good meal. Some company.

I am not familiar with the quality of alcohol they might’ve had in 1880 Ogallala, but I’m sure they weren’t drinking Maker’s Mark. They were drinking whiskey, a lot of it. I found this reference from the book, “History of Nebraska and Its People”, published in 1921:

About the time of Sidney’s last lynching episode, that of McDonald in 1881, ‘ frightful orgies were common at a road house some distance north of town, at one of the spring creeks leading down to the Platte river. One night, a dance and carouse was going full when a soldier accidentally shot himself dead. The others deposited the body in a corner of the room and ordered the music to proceed. After a time a fellow named Jack Page and another had a little altercation, Jack’s adversary, dead, was placed into the corner with the soldier, and the dance went wildly on.

Later in the night a third man was killed, and ibis broke up the dance. The lights were shol -in Daylight found some sleeping off their drunken stupor and others gone. The three dead were taken to Boot Hill Graveyard.

Yeee haw!

As the marker text shows, settlement by homesteaders forced the cattle trails West over time. What’s that mean?

That means that nice people in their “Sunday Go To Meeting clothes” didn’t want to go out into a dusty, shit-filled town where drunk guys were shooting each other willy-nilly, so they came up with laws to keep the cattle drives out of their areas. A common practice was to quarantine an area. Texas cattle carried a tick fever; towns use that as an excuse to get rid of them. It wasn’t exactly false, as Texas cattle could infect other herds and ranchers who paid hundreds of dollars for prize bulls wouldn’t want them falling over dead because Texas cattle came through their area.

With civilization came land ownership. Homesteading. Barbed wire fencing. You couldn’t drive cattle over someone’s land without paying them, and even then they might object. Hence, move the trails further west as civilization moved in.

Cattle drives only lasted around 20 years. Railroads came into Texas making them unnecessary.

I can’t end without mentioning the TV series, “Lonesome Dove”. It was an attempt to show the hard life on the trail. Instead, Robert Duvall, Tommie Lee Jones, Diane Lane, Danny Glover and Ricky Schroder provided such a viewing experience people wanted to get on a horse and get out on a drive.

Two scenes I remember:

Gus’ (Robert Duvall) last words, “By God, Woodrow, it’s been one helluva party.”

Deets (Danny Glover) turning to wave goodbye to Newt (Ricky Schroder) as he’s headed after horse thieves. At his wave, I thought, “They’re foreshadowing his death.” Damn, I loved Danny Glover’s character in that series. Thinking of that scene still brings a tear to my eye.

Last thought:
Nebraska is often seen as a highway were people are always moving through the state on their way to somewhere else. Consider the Oregon Trail or the Mormon trail of settlers moving through Nebraska on their way to the West. Even now, you have people driving down I-80 on their way to Colorado to go skiing and purchase edibles. The Texas trail was at a time at which Nebraska was a destination.

Nate is doing his series on Nebraska related recipes. I thought it would of interest to look up what cowboys might have eaten on the trail. One of the more interesting recipes I found was named son of a bitch stew. Here are the ingredients.

  • 2 pounds lean beef.Half a Heart.
  • 1/2 pound calf liver
  • One set sweetbreads
  • One set brains
  • One set marrow gut
  • salt, pepper
  • Louisiana hot sauce.

Kill off a young steer. Cut up beef, liver, and heart into 1 inch cubes; slice the marrow gut into small rings. Place in a Dutch oven or deep casserole. Cover meat with water and simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Add salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste. Takes take sweetbreads and brains and cut into small pieces. Add to stew. Simmer another hour, never boiling.What must strike you most interesting about this recipe is the addition of brains and the question, “What the heck is marrow gut?”

Marrow gut is defined as “an edible internal organ of a cow or bison, especially the small intestine of the calf”. Looking further, marrow gut is a small tube running between two of a calf’s four stomachs. It is filled with a substance resembling marrow (this would be from a young calf still feeding from its mother, so perhaps it doesn’t fit into the trail drive subject) but apparently it was added to the stew to provide the unique flavor. Obviously, it would be milk oriented, hence the recipe says no boiling as that would curdle the milk.

*American Indians - I will use either American Indians or Indians. I will not be using Native Americans. I know a few Lakota, and I have asked them about what they prefer. Most didn’t care. One hated the term Native Americans. That is good enough for me.

Note that on this map - the trail we’re talking about is referred to as the “Western Trail”. Note how they continued to move west over time.